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Sarasota Wednesday, May 27, 2009 11 years ago

Children of the Opera

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

If you had waited for the fat lady to sing at the end of New Gate School’s production of “Pearl” Friday night at the Players Theatre, you’d still be sitting in your seat waiting for the show to end.

This opera was without a buxom mezzo-soprano in an ostentatious gown or, for that matter, a Pavarotti-esque tenor in a crushed-velvet robe. Rather, “Pearl,” an underwater children’s opera featuring 94 New Gate students ranging in age from 6 to 12 years old, was a bright and whimsical story ripe with sea creatures, water nymphs and river goddesses.

And, unlike most operas, in which the cast members rehearse for weeks leading up to the show, this one was produced in just five days.

“At this point we’ve got it down to a science,” says drama Director Debbie Vale. “We cast the show in March, so the music teacher can work with the students to prepare them before the Joneses come in May.”

The Joneses, of whom Vale is speaking, are Sanford and Judy, a Savannah, Ga., couple who have spent the past 29 years staging children’s operas at Montessori schools across the country.

Sanford, 71, a retired Montessori educator, lecturer and composer, and Judy, 70, a retired Broadway dancer, started coming to Sarasota nine years ago at the urging of New Gate parent Kim Cornetet, whose four children participated in the couple’s summer theater camp in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“My children have participated in a lot of things,” says Cornetet, “but this opera has by far, heads above the rest, had the most profound effect.”

When Cornetet relocated to Sarasota in the late 1990s, she enrolled her children in Sarasota’s premier Montessori school and suggested the school hire the Joneses to produce New Gate’s first children’s opera.

For three weeks straight, she and Sarasota philanthropist Victoria Leopold, a former fashion designer whose daughter was in the show, hand-stitched the children’s costumes — ornate kimonos, elaborate headpieces, drab parachute pants and Japanese coolie hats. In 2001, “The Burning Rice Fields” debuted at
The Players Theatre with an all-youth cast.

“Parents were just blown away,” Cornetet says. “People thought they were showing up for a little school musical and it was like the kids had practiced for a year. It was overwhelming.”

Sanford Jones has devoted his entire career to Montessori education. Considered one of the driving forces in the country’s Montessori movement, Jones was the founding president of the North American Montessori Teachers Association and the former executive director of the Association Montessori Internationale-USA.

For more than 10 years he taught at a Montessori school in Washington, D.C., and later New York City, where he met and married Judy. After the couple married in 1986, they moved to Charleston, S.C., to direct a fine-arts program for the Charles Towne Montessori School. They soon created Youth Opera International, a traveling children’s opera residency for which Sanford composed 13 original scores and Judy choreographed dance routines.

“We decided instead of simply teaching dance and simply teaching school, why not combine our abilities and create children’s operas?” says Sanford Jones, who now works as a consultant-in-residence at a public Montessori magnet program in Savannah, Ga. “We saw it as an opportunity to use a genre that involved acting, dancing and singing to teach worthy themes to children.”

The whirlwind rehearsal process, says Jones, is often more rewarding than the final production. Take “Pearl” for example: All New Gate children in grades one through six are required to participate in the annual show. All year they study the opera’s cultural significance, from the geographical properties of the location to the historical circumstances of the plot.

“A lot of people are puzzled by the word ‘opera,’” Jones says. “They picture women kind of dragging their husbands to see a production. They don’t see it as something younger people are attracted to.”

Every one of the Joneses’ operas dovetails with a Montessori lesson plan or theme, and, as a school starts to rehearse a show, the couple will refer to the children only by their stage names — Fisherman, Worm, Starfish, Minnow, Sailor, Eel and Crayfish.

“As a teacher you’re always sewing seeds,” Jones says. “You never know which ones will germinate. To this day I come across former students who will say, ‘Hey, remember me? I was the jack-in-the-box in ‘Harlequin.’ I’m a drama major because of you.’”

TV star has
New Gate roots

Before 17-year-old Sarasota native Ashley Rickards landed a role on the CW’s “One Tree Hill,” she was the eel in New Gate’s 2003 production of “Pearl.”

Rickards, who’s filming a movie this summer with Lisa Kudrow and William H. Macy, says it was her experience performing in New Gate’s children’s opera that inspired her to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

“I remember I didn’t want to do the opera at first,” Rickards says. “I thought it was a waste of time. I felt stupid getting dressed up in tights. Once I got there, though, the minute I stepped on the stage … I can’t explain it. I felt like I found what I was meant to do. To get that feeling at such a young age was awesome. I have New Gate to thank for that.”

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